The sad black flag flies today from the tallest pole at Fenway Park. It flies atop municipal buildings, legion halls, and police stations in every city and town. Fire trucks carry it on antennae, and it waves from highway overpasses. The silhouetted profile of a beleaguered man droops before a prison tower and a string of barbed wire. Inscribed above are ''POW-MIA," and below, ''You are not forgotten." That the tattered, faded flag still flies so ubiquitously, more than three decades after the end of the Vietnam War, suggests that America's self-inflicted psychological wound has yet to heal. But the flag that started out as a well-meaning symbol of remembrance took on other meanings, and now more than Vietnam is evoked.
In the beginning, compassion defined the impulse. It was 1971 when the wife of a missing American soldier had the flag made. It became the symbol of the National League of POW-MIA Families, as I learned from its website. In 1973, as part of the Paris Peace Accords, nearly 600 POWs came back from Vietnam. More than 2,000 American personnel were unaccounted for, but that figure included many dead who had simply been annihilated in the violence of combat, leaving no remains. Sometimes, survivors had reported their lost comrades ''missing" rather than ''killed in action" as a way to guarantee continued salary payments to their widows. Such well-meaning acts of sympathy backfired when those widows were then denied any kind of closure. Many of them clung to the vain hope that their husbands would return.
America's humiliation in Vietnam spawned a postwar impulse to further demonize the enemy, leading to the myth that the Vietnamese had secretly held back Americans in jungle prisons, where they were still being tortured. The myth spawned an industry, centered on the Rambo films, and a political movement, dominated by Republicans.
In violation of the peace agreement, a punitive trade embargo was imposed on Vietnam -- not to be lifted until the mythical prisoners were released. Impossible accountings for the ''missing" were demanded. Candidates like Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole shamelessly exploited the grief of the POW-MIA families, giving credence to the lie that their loved ones could still be alive. In 1990, Congress passed a law declaring the POW-MIA flag a symbol of concern for ''Americans still prisoner, missing, and unaccounted for."
In 1991, a Newsweek cover showed a photo that was purported to be of three captive Americans -- a hoax. The perversion of what began as authentic concern for lost young men was complete when Americans convinced themselves that any direct acknowledgment of the MIAs' almost certain fate was treason.
Finally, in 1993, a Senate committee led by John Kerry and John McCain found ''no compelling evidence" that any Americans were being held, and in 1994 the embargo against Vietnam was lifted. Against all reason, Bob Dole tried to keep the issue alive, arguing against normalization of relations with Vietnam. Dole's argument failed, but his rescue of the banner whose time had clearly passed succeeded. The missing men were conscripted again, now as ghosts to haunt the nation. The black flag, though born in love, had become a symbol of a true American darkness.
One would like to think the POW-MIA flag had transcended the reactionary uses to which it was put by a political fringe that abused the memory of lost heroes to raise money and win elections. For many Americans, the flag is simply a token of sorrow for the entire Vietnam episode, and it functions also as a sign of concern for a new generation of US troops who are at war. But the darker meaning dominates. After Vietnam, a self-pitying sense of victimhood defined the American mood. That generated a vengeful determination never to be shown up as weak -- or captive -- again. That, in turn, brought us to the disastrous present, which is explained by recalling that the men on whose watch the disgrace of Vietnam climaxed included Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Their wars against Baghdad (Cheney's in 1991, Rumsfeld's now) were supposed to stifle the Vietnam syndrome once and for all, but Iraq, in pathological recombination, has only quickened it.
No wonder the grief-struck flag refuses to go away. When we Americans behold that silhouetted bowed figure -- the prison tower, the barbed wire -- we may feel the pointed shame anew, but now we recognize the unknown image. We ourselves have become the prisoners of war; it is our own government that has taken us captive. The black flag at last belongs to all of us.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2006 The Boston Globe